PHS EXPERIENCE INSPIRES FILMMAKER: Damien Chazelle (Princeton High School Class of 2003) directs the action on the set of his film “Whiplash,” currently on view at the Princeton Garden Theatre. Mr. Chazelle will be Skyped in from Los Angeles to discuss his work with Town Topics movie reviewer Kam Williams at a reception in the PHS Performing Arts Center following a special screening of the film at the theater on Wednesday, December 17. (Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures)
Whiplash, written and directed by the 2003 Princeton High School (PHS) graduate Damien Chazelle, playing at the Princeton Garden Theatre on Nassau Street through December 11, is also scheduled for a special showing there next Wednesday, December 17.
The 6 p.m. screening and the 8:15 p.m. reception that will follow in the PHS Performing Arts Center, will raise funds for the PHS music program that was so important to Mr. Chazelle as a drummer in the award-winning PHS Studio Band. The reception will feature a live video discussion with the director, who now lives in Los Angeles, and a performance by the current PHS Studio Band. Town Topics’ movie reviewer Kam Williams will moderate the discussion.
Whiplash, which won this year’s audience award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, is Mr. Chazelle’s second film; he also wrote and directed Guy And Madeline on a Park Bench. The new film is a drama about a young jazz drummer in a music conservatory who butts heads with his tyrannical teacher, the film has received wide critical acclaim. It is loosely based, and the word “loosely” bears emphasizing, on Mr. Chazelle’s experience as a member of the highly competitive PHS Studio Band.
Whiplash took some time and a great deal of effort to get to the screen as a full length feature. It was first produced as an 18-minute short soon after Mr. Chazelle’s screenplay was listed on the 2012 Black List, an annual selection of the best un-produced movie scripts. Shot in three days with a budget of $23,000, this version won the Short Film Jury Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and the project was picked up by Bold Films, which funded a feature-length version with a budget of $3.3 million.
Shooting on video in order to save costs, the director has turned the medium’s limited color range to advantage in highlighting yellow hues of gold, browns and ochres as well as blues and greens.
Actor Miles Teller plays Andrew, a 19-year-old jazz drummer and first-year student at the country’s top music school, the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. A huge fan of drummer Buddy Rich, Andrew thinks and breathes drumming; he is consumed with ambition and a desire to be the best.
Andrew is picked to become part of Shaffer’s top-ranked jazz band by a revered teacher, Terence Fletcher, played by actor J.K. Simmons. According to one reviewer, Mr. Fletcher is “a cross between R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket and Alec Baldwin’s a-hole salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross.” He is, in other words, a perfectionist given to extreme motivational tactics.
During one intense episode, Mr. Fletcher makes Andrew play so hard that his hands bleed and his drum sticks and set are covered with blood. Similar images include bandages, sweat, and bloody hands dipping slowly into buckets of ice water. By all accounts, the acting is astonishing, with Mr. Teller performing the drumming himself, including the jazz standards “Whiplash” and “Caravan” and some pretty impressive drum solos.
According to Damien’s mother Celia Chazelle, the teacher in the film is very loosely based on Princeton High School’s award-winning music teacher Anthony Biancosino. Known affectionately as “Dr. B,” Mr. Biancosino, who died in 2003, was a dedicated teacher who led the PHS Studio Band to repeated success at Boston’s Berklee High School Jazz Festival. Damien Chazelle played the drums in the PHS Studio Band. Led by Joe Bongiovi since 2007, the band has been described as being “on par with any professional jazz ensemble.”
Unlike the teacher in the film, portrayed by actor J.K. Simmons, Dr. B. was not given to throwing insults or chairs. As Ms. Chazelle is quick to point out, “The teacher isn’t based on any teacher that Damien had but rather a expression of his own anxiety and need to succeed. The film is an externalization of his own experiences in the PHS Studio Band.”
As Ms. Chazelle explained, her filmmaker son is very self-driven. “He wanted to excel and to please the band director and he was always anxious about the quality of his performance.”
A decade later, Mr. Chazelle has reflected upon those feelings and experiences to dramatic effect. Whiplash examines the questions “how far should one push oneself in order to achieve greatness and how far should a teacher push a student in order to achieve great art.” In other words, when is the line crossed between inspired motivation and abuse? What is excessive and when can means be justified by an end goal?
Mr. Chazelle grew up in a family of achievers. His father, Bernard Chazelle, teaches computer science at Princeton University; his mother Celia Chazelle, teaches history at The College of New Jersey.
“As a child he was always making films,” said his mother. “He wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of three; when he was very little he would ask his father to film him but as soon as he figured out how to use the camcorder the was making his own films — he’d gather his friends and they’d make up a story.” He would also draw in his younger sister Anna Chazelle, now an actress in New York City. “Anna was always in his movies, very often cast as the dead body, she’d be murdered quite early on,” recalled Ms. Chazelle, who claims that her son didn’t get his musical ear from her but rather from his French father who always had jazz playing in their Princeton home. The couple moved to Princeton in 1986 and both Damien and Anna went to Princeton schools.
To purchase tickets for the film and reception (adults $30, students $15), call (609) 683-4656, or visit: www.thegardentheatre.com; to purchase tickets for the reception only (adults $20, students $5), call Mr. Joseph Bongiovi at (609) 806-4280 ext.3091, or email email@example.com.